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‘The whole plan had to be re-done’: Yiannis Exarchos’ new Olympic broadcast strategy

After the IOC’s decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, SportsPro talks to the Olympic Channel’s executive director about the new challenges facing OBS and the Games' broadcast partners.

17 April 2020 Steven Impey

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) belatedly announced the postponement of Tokyo 2020 last month the tail on the ensuing ripple was long. 

The decision put commercial pressure on the Games’ broadcast and brand partners, but also other stakeholders who were months out from realising plans that have been years in development. 

Yiannis Exarchos, chief executive of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and executive director of the Olympic Channel, spoke to SportsPro at the end of last year about the in-house network’s plans for Tokyo 2020.  

This summer, OBS was set to debut a number of features for its coverage including the first ever ultra-high (UHD) definition production, and a new OBS Cloud platform in partnership with the Chinese conglomerate Alibaba and US technology firm Intel. The trio’s collaboration on an artificial intelligence (AI) tracking tool for broadcasters will also have to be put on ice. 

Now, with OBS retooling for the Games in 2021, SportsPro speaks to Exarchos to find out how the IOC is helping to fill the programming void. 

Yiannis Exarchos, OBS chief executive and executive director of the Olympic Channel

What has been your priority since the Olympic Games were postponed? 

For us, the intensive period started a few weeks before then, for the whole of the IOC. The internal discussions and work already started before the announcement because we had to manage the situation as it was developing. 

However, the single most important priority we had in mind was the health and safety of our families. This was why we took on measures early on to have our teams working from home. We already had the technology in place that would allow this to happen, not just for OBS, but also for the Olympic Channel. 

Our first priority was to be agile and to be able to work remotely. Our second was to get in touch with our rights-holder broadcasters. We advised them about the postponement on the same evening, two hours after the announcement, and we shared with them the first plans of how we would go about it.  

We still don’t have all the answers but our premise was, as the host broadcaster of the Games, to do whatever it takes to keep their operations intact for the next year and to support them as much as they need, so that they will have a very minimal impact from the postponement of the Games.  

As the rights holders of the Games, we have an extremely close relationship [with the broadcasters], which has developed throughout the years, and I think we have also seen from them incredible support, understanding and solidarity. They were all super supportive of the decision to postpone the Games and felt that, while it was a strong decision, it was the right decision. 

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirms the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games 

How has the Olympic Channel adapted? 

One of our other priorities has been the rescheduling of the whole content plan that we had in place leading up to Tokyo 2020. We had an extremely detailed plan of what we would be producing day-to-day and what type of content we would show as we were approaching the Games.  

This whole plan had to be redone and we are currently re-planning the whole of next year and how the channel and website of Tokyo 2020 is going to deal with this period. For the whole Olympic world, that is going to be about keeping the flame alive until the world is able to get out of this tunnel and we are able to reach the big reunion celebration, which I think is going to be the Olympic Games of Tokyo. 

First of all, we have relaunched new ideas. For example, we are currently running a new campaign called Stay Healthy, Stay Strong, Stay Active, which is primarily geared towards the social media and is mainly using athlete-generated content, telling stories of how they stay physically and mentally fit during this period. 

This campaign has already had incredible success. We have had a reach of more than 110 million in ten days and we have done that in collaboration and across all platforms of the Olympic ecosystem.  

We have also launched two special channels on the Olympic Channel, which now make up most of the traffic; one of them has all the opening ceremonies of previous Olympic Games; and the other is called Classic Finals, which is made up of classic finals sessions from previous Games.     

How are OBS and the Olympic Channel collaborating with IOC broadcasters? 

Moving ahead, we will be unfolding much more historical content from Olympic Games past but will also keep releasing fresh content that we were planning for this period and believe is still relevant, including our branded series with Bridgestone and Toyota. 

What we are also doing is offering our partner broadcasters the possibility to carry Olympic Channel 1, which is the linear version of the channel. While most broadcasters have been left without content to carry, for some, that is a huge gap in their programming. 

This is already being carried by Sky New Zealand, for example, SuperSport in South Africa, IMC across the Caribbean, and also many countries in Central and Southeast Asia under the umbrella of Dentsu. 

We have been a source of content for a lot of broadcasters to keep the flame alive and we have a lot of ideas to create a virtual sense of the Games during the days when the Games were supposed to be held, between 24th July and 9th August, which will be the time of the greatest withdrawal symptoms.  

Rest assured, we will be flooding the Olympic Channel during this time with the best Olympic content. 

Could esports become part of your offering in the absence of live competition? 

Listen, with esports, as you know, the wider IOC has already started the conversation to see what is possible and to what extent there can be an alignment with esports that sits within our values, and to what extent it can become part of the Olympic reality.  

I understand that this may be a period of opportunity for esports but we need to remember where we come from is a place of supporting and promoting the Olympic sports, so our first and key priority is to maintain the relevance of the existing Olympic sports with the audience. 

Many of these sports will suffer this summer. It’s not only the Games, it’s practically all sports events and athletes around the world, who don’t have the ability to train or compete. For us, the priority therefore is to maintain the connection with the fans and the relevance of the core Olympic sports. 

We do not see this as an opportunity to propose something different. Our duty, I believe, is to maintain the relevance of the Olympic sports and this is what we will be doing in collaboration with all the Olympic federations. 

How might the backlog of other sports impact Olympic broadcasts in 2021? 

As you know, the international sports calendar is one which is already very congested. So, I think that there is a common interest, both on the side of sports governance and the side of broadcasters, for this calendar to be properly readjusted. Nobody would benefit from a clash of events. 

I must say, and through the discussions I have already started, there has been huge flexibility on both sides. We saw that there was unanimous support for the postponement of the Games and a voluntary offering from some sports, such as track and field, to immediately consider moving the World Championship [in 2021] until one year later, to accommodate the Olympic Games. 

I believe that everybody realises the importance of accommodating the Olympic Games to the wider sports movement, while of course the Olympic Games will not want to clash with the interest and time of major sports and national leagues.

The next World Athletics Championships has already been moved to 2022

The first issue is that we do not exactly know – while there should be a sense of optimism that things will start to return to normal by the end of the summer – how long the pandemic is going to be. 

The other big factor, for me, while we are thinking about the commercial challenges of the broadcasters and the federations, we also have to think about the athletes. Every single one of them is planning, organising, optimising themselves, from both a physical and mental point of view. 

They have a plan for the whole year and this is aligned with the major events. This has brought what I think is a massive upheaval to the world of athletes – who are the fundamental of their sports. So, putting the events together into a proper calendar is important but what is also relevant is the bodies making sure the athletes will have the opportunity to return to normal routines and to go back in shape after a summer season that is almost completely lost. 

How is OBS serving brand sponsors in the absence of the Games this summer? 

If there is one thing that we need to clearly learn from the whole pandemic is that borders are not very relevant in modern reality, and that the only way forward for the world is cooperating, accepting, and respecting each other. During the backdrop of the pandemic, the value of the Olympics will remain very relevant in the months to come.  

Of course, this value proposition requires narrative, storytelling, and this is where the role of channels like the Olympic Channel and some commercial partners is very relevant. All of our series have, at their heart, some of the fundamental Olympic values and are not about the products of these companies. By associating themselves with what unites the Olympics, I think that first of all they are contributing in a very meaningful way, but also that they get back value themselves by being recognised, if I am allowed to say, as being ‘the right side of the equation’ at this difficult time. 

The other interesting thing to think about is the period between the Tokyo Summer Olympics [next year] and the Beijing Winter Olympics [in 2022], which now come very close together. After a period of withdrawal symptoms, we will have two Games, which are going to be spectacular and extremely moving, coming very close. From the point of view of the Olympic Channel and our digital activation, that presents a unique opportunity to sustain what we call a ‘peak-to-peak proposal’. 

Usually, the Olympics climax every two years before a period of relative valley. So, I think this is an interesting opportunity to see how we can make a continuous narrative from the summer Olympics in Tokyo, all the way through the end of the winter Games in Beijing. 

How will this impact the Olympic Games’ innovation and technology partnerships? 

Let me begin by saying that OBS and the Olympic Channel have been very committed on the side of digital transformation, believing that new technology does provide incredible opportunities for us to do things in a far more efficient way, but also to enhance the experience of viewers around the world. 

I never imagined that the catalyst for digital transformation would be the pandemic. We have been advocating and evangelising for months and years the possibility to work remotely and to use digital tools. What we have seen in the current situation, to a certain extent, is that it is possible, with a massive update from people and companies doing things without necessarily having a physical presence. 

I don’t think the world, from a working point of view, will ever be the same again and I think it will be a huge missed opportunity if the world doesn’t think about what are the incredible opportunities in using software such as cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR). 

While this could be the catalyst, there is also the issue of how much the technology companies will be able to continue at the same pace of innovation during the coming months. We will have to see how places like California and places in China will be affected in their capacity to create a new generation of technology during this difficult situation.  

The good thing is that the pandemic has clearly helped with the massive adoption of new technology and provides the possibility for our broadcast partners to prepare the signals and content that they need via the cloud, and there has been a significant update for that. 

How might 5G play a greater role at the Olympic Games in 2021? 

It is interesting that, right after the postponement and experience of working remotely, how many of our broadcasting partners are coming back to us and asking, with the benefit of more time, about the reconsideration of their operation in an effort to reduce their physical presence.  

That will also help reduce costs and make things more efficient, but it is very clear that the things some of those people – who are used to more traditional technology – were scared of, do work and do provide benefits. So, I do see an increased adoption and I see the one real frontier, which is human reluctance and aversion, moving aside. 

That also gives us time to test the fundamental opportunity that 5G technology is offering, which is a far wider capacity [to carry more] content with the practical absence of latency, which allows for real-live transmission, and also the association of live transmission with enhanced reality. They are two factors we are looking at very closely. 

I do believe 5G, as in many other industries, will be a catalyst. I must tell you we already have in place the mass adoption of 5G for the Games of Beijing [in 2022]. In Beijing, we already have the infrastructure put in place in the Olympic venues. 

By the time of Beijing, we will begin to see significant adoption of new ways of consumer experience, including augmented reality, which will be enabled primarily by 5G technology. One would think that, if things go well, that maybe this also presents a last-minute opportunity for Tokyo, where there are already plans to deploy 5G on a trial basis in a couple of venues. 

Perhaps now, Japanese telecom operators will be able to do this [on a larger scale] in time for the Tokyo Games. We haven’t discussed that with them yet, but it would be an interesting development due to the postponement of the Games. 

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